Japanware in Usk

When Edward Allgood died in 1763, a feud between his 3 sons and nephew (John, Thomas, Edward and Thomas), was well under way. It ended with two sons leaving the Pontypool works to set up their own factory in Usk, along with the major financial backing of the company and the majority of the workers. The quarrel was said to be over the division of the secret industrial process; a quarrel that became a very complicated affair as time went on.

A period of intense rivalry followed between the Usk works and the re-established factory in Pontypool. A series of advertisements was placed in the Gloucester Journal in the summer of 1763, which is an interesting source of information about the two companies. The advertisements reveal that the Usk business had at least three selling agents in the fashionable shopping district of London, thus testifying to the popularity of the goods. They also make it clear that the greater part of the assets and customers of the original firm transferred to Usk in the dispute.

The Gloucester Journal. Monday, July 4th 1763
By ALLGOOD, DAVIES, and EDWARDS all sorts of the real and most durable Japan Ware is continued to be made and sold at the Manufactory at Pontypool. Perfection, both in Japanning and Painting; where an Assortment will always be kept in Readiness for the Choice of Gentlemen and Ladies who travel to those Parts; and Letters of Orders directed to the said Company will be properly observed.

N.B. The Company think it unnecessary to enumerate the different places and Persons who take to their Goods for Sale, their Ware itself, where seen, having thither to been a sufficient Recommendation to the Sale thereof.

A reply by the Usk factory August 8th 1763

The Gloucester Journal. Monday, August 8th 1763
Messrs. ALLGOOD and Co. the original JAPAN MANUFACTURERS, beg leave to acquaint Gentlemen, Tradesmen, etc., that they have removed their manufactory from Pont-y-pool to Usk, in Monmouthshire, where they may be furnished with every article in the JAPAN WAY, well known and allowed by Judges far to excel any Performance of the Kind in the known World. And whereas great quantities of Japan Goods made in Birmingham and elsewhere (vastly inferior for Beauty and Duration to the original Manufacturers) are sold under the sanction of our Names, to the great Imposition of the Public, and Discredit of our Business :- We think it absolutely necessary to inform the Public, that the original and Genuine JAPANN’D GOODS are sold only by Mr. Grey, Cutler, in New Bond-street, Mrs Gibbs, in Broad-street, and Miss Pinchbeck, in Pall-Mall, London; Mr. Swanton, Cutler, on the Key, and nowhere else in Bristol; Mr Rouble, Mr Ball, and Mr Speren, in Bath; Mr Cowcher, in the Westgate-Street, Gloucester; and Mr Cooper in Chepstow; at the very lowest prices.

Any order will be obeyed on the shortest Notice with the greatest Punctuality (or to our Friends, as above), and the Favour gratefully acknowledged by THOMAS ALLGOOD, EDWARD ALLGOOD, THOMAS ALLGOOD, JUN.

How Japanware was made

The Allgood family tried to keep the process of japanning metal ware a secret. Below is a reasonable idea of how it was done, however we still do not know for certain.

  • First the iron bars were rolled into thin sheets.
  • The iron sheets were then cleaned and dipped into hot tin, which gave them a thin rust-resistant coat.
  • The sheets were then dipped into fermenting rye, which acted like an acid. This cleaned the sheet thoroughly so that it could be decorated.
  • The sheets were then cut into strips, which could be shaped into various items. We do not know what kinds of tools were used to shape the items, but it is possible that they were similar to the ones used by silversmiths today.
  • A coat of varnish made from a mixture of linseed oil, umber and ‘uthrage’ (a form of coal dust) was then applied, and the item was baked in an oven which transformed the varnish into a hard, shiny, black surface.
  • The article was then decorated. Sometimes a tortoiseshell finish was given to it before decorating.
  • Numerous coats of varnish were then applied.
  • The article was baked again, giving it a very hard-wearing surface

Pontypool & Usk Rivalry

Before Edward Allgood died in 1763, the Pontypool Japanning business had passed to his sons and nephew, Thomas, Edward, John and Thomas. Almost immediately a feud developed between them, and Thomas and Edward left the Pontypool works to set up their own factory in Usk, six miles away. The major financial backing for the firm and the majority of the workers moved with them.

John and his cousin Thomas remained at Pontypool and had to enlist the financial help of two local lawyers, Davies and Edwards. Their investment assisted with the capital required to keep the business going, plus new employees to replace some of the key workers who had moved to Usk, such as John Stockham; the main decorator. He was replaced by Benjamin Barker whose mannered style characterises the production at Pontypool from 1763 to 1781.

For the 20 years following the split, the Pontypool works prospered and their products were sold through merchants in the larger towns in England. Many items were commissioned by wealthy families, for example the view of Pontypool Park House (1765) and the Arms of Sir Hildebrand Jacob (c.1770). Less expensive items were exported to America, via merchants in Bristol.

The intense rivalry of the 1760s was stimulating for both companies. The quality and decorative style of Japanware from this period developed with each copying the other, making it very difficult to tell apart. In 1800, Evans Tour of Wales describes Pontypool Japanware as ‘everywhere seen, everywhere admired; there are indeed many imitations of it in Birmingham and other places, but they are inferior to the productions of the original manufactory’.

In 1779, Thomas Allgood died and there followed yet another dispute between his two sons Henry and William who were due to inherit the works. Henry moved to Birmingham where he worked with a long established japanning firm, John Taylor & Co. which had been in business since 1740. William continued to run the business alone and because of his natural ability as a salesman, he was nicknamed ‘Billy the Bagman’.

The Midland manufacturers had now come into their own, producing excellent quality Japanware in direct competition to the Pontypool factories. The rival factory at Usk was also still in production. To meet this competition, William planned to increase production, cut costs and improve quality. There were new markets waiting for the finished products in France, Holland and America.

The durable nature of the products meant that carrying it over long distances was not a problem.

Examples of Pontypool ware of this period can therefore be found in the large houses of the Eastern Seaboard. Paul Revere, a silver smith in peaceful time, but noted for his role in the American War of Independence, sold japanned wares from his Boston shop.

This increase in production under William called for new and larger premises. The works became divided between two premises in Crane Street. Upper Crane Street then became known as Japan Street.

Sadly, due to family disputes, the Pontypool factory declined, and by 1817 it had closed.

The Usk works continued to flourish until the turn of the 19th Century when Edward Allgood died. Edward Allgood had outlived both his brother Thomas and his nephew Thomas. Upon Edward’s death, the works passed into the possession of John Hughes, then John Pyrke and finally to Evan Jones in around 1826, who found it very difficult to compete with the cheaper metal and papier-mâché Japanware of the midlands. He moved the business to the back of his retail shop in Bridge Street and reduced the scale and method of production. Trade dwindled, particularly after the introduction of electro-plating. The business ceased trading on Evan Jones’ death in 1860 and the remaining stock was auctioned in 1862. In 1926 the Pontypool factory (by then derelict) was demolished. There is little left to remind us of a business that became world famous for the beautiful things it made.

The Final Years

Extract from ‘The Local Register’ or ‘Chronology of Pontypool’.

The superior hardness and lasting polish of the Pont-y-Pool ware was far before any that could be produced by any other hardware town in the kingdom. Its superiority was demonstrated by ‘old Billy Allgood.’ Being one evening at his neighbours, the Red Lion, a Birmingham traveller in the same line being present and the traveller asserted that he could produce a superior article to those of Allgood. A wager of five pounds was offered and accepted. Upon the traveller’s next journey, each was to produce a snuff box, and the persons then present agreed to sit as assessors. At the appointed time, the boxes were produced and submitted for inspection by the judges.

The finish of each article was equally good, but in the design, the Birmingham box was declared the best, when up starts ‘Old Billy’ shouting out, ‘Now for the test’, calling for the landlord to bring the kitchen tongs, the traveller wonderingly enquired what he wanted with them. ‘Why, to put the boxes in the fire, to be sure,’ replied Billy. ‘If that is it’, said the traveller, ‘and you really mean to put them in the fire, I shall give in; I do not guarantee my box to stand fire’.

Of course, Billy was able to put the Pontypool box into the fire, and remove it unscathed, showing the real strength and quality of Pontypool Japanware. This tale is not founded on fact, but has grown up to become almost legendary with regard to Billy Allgood.